At the top of the pyramid, many an artist basks in the memory of some great nay-sayer who tried, back when, to block the way. "Give it up," the false prophet advised. "You're no good." Dolora Zajick tells another tale. "When I started, I had no high notes, no low notes and no coloratura," she says. "My voice was ugly and loud."
Spend a few hours with the reigning dramatic mezzo of the age,and you will recognize the comment as entirely characteristicfrank, unsentimental, unsparingly analytical. "I don't have a natural vocal technique," she continues. "It took a while to fish out what was in there. I had the great fortune of having a technician as a teacher."
When it comes to technique, Zajick is a believer. "The greatest artists are sublimators," she declares, "and technically oriented. When you're connected technically, you empty out all the energy that is in you -- that is you. All the anguish, joy, everything. That's what people pay to see."
The technician who helped Zajick on her way is Ted Puffer, formerly of the University of Nevada and head of Opera Nevada, now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. "He had something to offer, and I had the ability to absorb," Zajick explains simply.
Sure enough, no one sneezes at Zajick's range any more (C below middle C to the Queen of the Night's high F, which she sings not falsetto but full voice). As for her timbre, it is powerfully seductive, full of rich color. The authority with which she commands her instrument verges on the awesome. In 1991, Birgit Nilsson said, "Zajick's voice is the only one existing today without any competition in the world." Nor has any credible competition materialized in the meantime. Last May, Die Welt proclaimed, "She has a voice on which one could raise whole temple complexes."
The occasion for this tribute was her portrayal of Amneris in Pet Halmen's new Aida at the Berlin State Opera, but if blowing off the roof were not just a figure of speech, this daughter of the pharaohs would have practically every major opera house in the world open to the sky. Zajick's Azucena, complete with the part's seldom-heard high C and spot-on trills, has unleashed the same sort of tumult. Her Eboli in Don Carlo too has been greatly admired. This season at the Met, she added Ulrica to her list. "It bothers me a little that it's just one scene," she said months before the premiere, "but it does have its own little splash."
Little splash? As the clairvoyant, Zajick delivered the visceral thrill that the rest of the revival lacked. The word on Zajick in the business is that she "always delivers" -- even when a stageful of other people do not. Under these circumstances, triumph is not all it might be. "When we have a really good cast, conductor and stage director, I come off best," she says. "With lesser colleagues, I have to compensate, and that's no fun." But that is not the reason she is retiring Ulrica after a single season. "Maybe I'll do it again if I'm sixty-five and my voice drops," she says. "Ulrica is really a contralto."
Zajick likes clean distinctions. She positions herself as a high mezzo. "I can pop an occasional high note," she says, "but I can't hang there." Her best notes, in her own view, are her three B-flats. Saint-Saëns' Dalila is an ideal fit. She believes there would be many more dramatic mezzos around if they weren't so busy trying to turn themselves into sopranos.
Don't get her started on vocal technique unless you have plenty of time and really want to know. "You should be able to bring the head voice down to a third below the top of the chest voice," she announces. "It will be weak, but it will be there. And you should be able to bring the chest voice at least a major third above the break where the chest voice ordinarily ends. This gives you strength in both directions. You should be able to go from above the break to below and back on all vowels, without a break. When you can do this, you've mastered technique. You can choose. Say you have a B-flat below the staff. You can sing head. You can sing chest. You can sing half and half, or more one than the other. In Mozart you'd usually use head voice, but in 'Non più di fiori' [Idomeneo] you must use some chest -- though some people treat chest voice like a disease. In 'Voi che sapete,' the middle C must be head."
How about that trill of hers, which passes muster even with that exacting connoisseur of ornament Will Crutchfield? "I just learned," Zajick replies. "It took a long time. I started thinking about it as a student. It was in the back of my mind. I fiddled around. I needed it for Trovatore. Now I have it." For the role of Adalgisa, which she took on last year, she needed a pianissimo high C. Now she has that, too.
Zajick has dismantled her voice from top to bottom, examining each and every working part. Articles about her often hearken back to her brief stint as a pre-med student at the University of Nevada, in Reno. "I switched to music early, because I would rather be in rehearsal than memorizing nerves and bones and the intricacies of biochemistry."
All the same, her clinical mindset lodges very deep. Everything she tackles is dissected, anatomized, diagnosed. "I'm a stylist," Zajick says. "I won't sing a part unless I've got the style down." For each act of an opera, she prepares a workbook containing, in parallel, the complete text (phrase by phrase, with repetitions), a verbatim translation and a phonetic transcription in the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Zajick's acting has rarely been singled out, but then, a singer is so often at the mercy of stage directors. "Do you know how many productions I've been in where the most important thing you do is usurped by the decor? An Aida in which at every important reaction the lights would switch or a column would open?"
No, she would rather not name names. No, she would rather not speak of her colleagues, neither to censure nor to praise. Well, there was a Trovatore in Toulouse that was "quite wonderful," in the round, on a raked stage, with a unit set, with lots of action and lots of interaction. "What looked like a sky at one moment would be a castle wall the next moment." The director? "Nicolas Joël -- a tyrant but a genius. And no smoke!" Zajick is allergic to smoke -- cigarette smoke, pipe smoke, the smoke they use onstage for atmosphere. Her contract has a no-smoke clause. A new "cracked vapor" system called DF-50 is O.K. with her, however, and she carries the product description in her compendious leather organizer.
For the fact that she needs that organizer, she has Ted Puffer to thank: not only did he teach her technique, he also pushed her out of the nest. As a novice, she expected to stay on in Reno, "living a cozy life," as she has put it, and singing in Puffer's shows. At his insistence, she struck out for New York. When Juilliard's doors failed to open to her, she landed at the Manhattan School of Music, where she spent three lean years. Reports that she slept in Central Park are true. How long?
"On and off for about a year," she answers. "It's not that dangerous if you have your feelers out. My last year, I took out a big loan from school, several thousand dollars, and started living decently: one bed in a room, with a roof over my head."
Church jobs helped, again in more ways than one. In 1982, on a single Sunday, fellow choristers at the First Presbyterian Church in New York took up a collection from the congregation to send Zajick to the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She came home with a bronze medal, the first American to place in a dozen years. Stage director Lou Galterio, who knew her from Manhattan, started talking to Elizabeth Crittenden of Columbia Artists Management, who brought Zajick to the attention of Terence A. McEwen, then general director of San Francisco Opera, who accepted her into his company's young-artists program. After three years of intensive grooming, she emerged in May 1986 in Il Trovatore, revived especially for her with a cast that included Ghena Dimitrova and Franco Bonisolli. In McEwen's words, Zajick "walked off with the show." She was just past thirty.
Today her rapidly expanding repertory encompasses Russian (Marfa in Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans), verismo (Adriana Lecouvreur's Princess) and French (Dalila, Massenet's Hérodiade, which may be heard on the new Sony recording). Not Carmen: "I'm an actress," Zajick explains, "not a dancer." Ortrud lies ahead, as do La Favorite and Santuzza. She is hoping for Meyerbeer's Fidès. In her spare time and for her own enjoyment, Zajick is realizing the bass of the score of Handel's Serse, hoping to bring it to the stage someday.
n November, Zajick invited me for a demonstration of the technique on which she has built her career. While her mentor, Ted Puffer, was recuperating from an illness, she took over his most advanced students from the Manhattan School.
Puffer's technique, its most noted practitioner maintains, suits voices of all sizes. The voices of the students she will be working with today, however, are big ones. "Technique," Zajick believes, "is specific things done to achieve specific results. It's not done with allegory. 'Sing like you have soda pop up your nose and going up between your eyes,' or 'Sing like a morning meadow.' When a teacher says this kind of thing, you know you're in trouble."
Her own image for what's going on is strictly mechanical. "You're putting a nozzle on an air flow," she tells Lillian, twenty-four, a soprano with what sounded like the makings of a Donna Anna, "but you've got to have an air flow to put a nozzle on. Does that make sense?"
Arguably, this is no image at all but more like an engineer's schematic. The air flow is an air flow, after all. In anatomy, they call that nozzle by another name (trachea, or windpipe), but "nozzle" is descriptive. The object of Zajick's exertions is a quality she calls focus, which, though the term is borrowed from optics, may not be an image either. "Say nyin-nyin-nyin!" Zajick commands, a dead ringer for Henry Higgins, producing sounds of old Peking. "Yek-yek-yek!," sings Lillian, holding her nose in one hand, her chin in the other, tip of an index finger to alveolar ridge, then repeating the exercise with a hand to the belly. "Again!" Zajick orders. "Nasty! Like a witch."
"Do you feel your diaphragm moving up or out?" Zajick wants to know. "Both," says Lillian. "Good!," Zajick declares. "It should be both." Later I check my ear against Zajick's. "Wasn't Lillian singing 'yek-yek-yek'?" "That's a hard one," Zajick says. "And she had a cold."
Her next visitor is Phil, twenty-four, a baritone with the build of the martial-arts threat he used to be. "Focus from your diaphragm," she tells him. "It's not brute strength you need but coordinated strength. If it's misapplied, strength works against you." So there is Phil, arpeggiating, moaning, baying, all with the object of toning up the diaphragm, building a doughnut at the midriff that may look like fat, says Zajick, but is actually muscle. Only singers who sing right have it.
Presently, Phil swings into a Handel aria, at first a little rockily. As Zajick goes over the technicalities of the aria, issues of vocal control shade into considerations of art. "The fatal day is come!," Phil trumpets, but the mechanic hears a glitch. "It's very hard to sing a d after an l," she advises Phil. He tries again, improving. "How do you keep that classy sound without losing energy?," Zajick asks rhetorically. "You don't want to get arty. Coordinate accents! That immediately will give you lots of energy."
Willpower, cognition, study, patience: these are the tools of Zajick's craft, which she knows how to pass on. Though the approach has worked for her, it does have limitations. There is something sphinxlike about her, something abstract, withheld. There are mysteries of art that analysis cannot capture, locked doors to which the key is intuition. So far, Zajick seems mostly to have let them be.
By her own account, Zajick prefers, in her work and her life, to operate on the intellectual level. She is not what you would call a confiding person. Back in the files are some stories that give a few glimpses into her background, but not many. The most touching, from Opernglas, involves her father, whom she paid back for an interstate bus ticket with tickets to her San Francisco Opera debut. But family is no subject for exploration. She allows that she is the first of five children. Of her three brothers, the oldest could have been a Wotan. We move on.
Zajick lights up when she speaks of her home in Nevada, to which she returns for at least three months a year, much of it devoted to reading (poetry, psychology, anthropology, history, natural sciences). She loves her garden, pictures of which she shares with the infectious delight of a proud parent. And what are these little faces popping up from the pond? Frogs! "I know more about toads and frogs," Zajick says, "than anyone else I know!"
Star though she is, she views opera as a very strange world, almost a madhouse. "Artists tend to have affective disorders, which is why they have more to put out. The field is full of people who need to be the center of attention. It's suspended between high art and a primal scream. The business is full of egomaniacs, top to bottom. I've seen some real lulus." She hands me Kay Redfield Jamison's book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. "It's all in here."
Zajick does not disavow a need of her own to be the center of attention. But her degree of self-knowledge, her methodical rigor, her need to categorize, these put her in a space apart. "I am somewhat of an anomaly," she admits. "I'm driven more by intrinsic things than many of my colleagues are. Some of my colleagues say they love to go on, but I see them sweating. For me, the most rewarding experience is often a Sitzprobe, when you can really enjoy what you're doing. I enjoy music for the music itself."
And what about the extrinsic things? Money? "I like to get paid." Applause? "I definitely appreciate applause at the end of a performance. I connect with an audience. I feel that. When people stand up and cheer -- nobody can take that away from you."